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Shelf Markers - Yay! Or Nay?

Updated: Jun 25, 2020

Dear Dr. Laura

I’m so new I cannot even figure out what shelf markers are all about. Do I need to use them? How do they really help (or not)? If I don’t use them, is there something I should use instead?


Forever Marked Librarian

Hi, Forever Marked Librarian!

In my opinion, shelf markers used to be common practice, but are not used by everyone anymore. I don’t really know if there is a “history of shelf makers” website, but I can speak from personal experience and what I've seen other librarians do. By the way, some people call them “shelf sticks”. I will use “shelf marker” in this post.

The initial idea is that when used properly, shelf markers can help keep the library shelves organized. Shelf markers are typically used to mark where a book needs to be replaced while browsing. When a student finds a book they want to look at, the student would slip a shelf marker into the exact spot where they found the book. Shelf markers are usually very thin so they can easily slip between books. They also tend to be long to extend past the shelf for easy visibility when it’s time to return the book to its location.

Shelf Markers are long plastic strips.

What do librarians use for shelf markers?

  • Buy official shelf markers from one of your vendors

  • Paint stir sticks (just know they are thick and can splinter)

  • Laminate manila folders and cut into strips

Sometimes art work is on a shelf marker.

What is on the shelf markers?

  • Many are blank, just assorted colors of plastic

  • Some have cute images like animals or other easily recognizable icons. That way students can keep up with which shelf marker is theirs when they return their book to the shelf.

  • I have seen some with Dewey “cheat sheets” to help guide the students through the stacks.

  • Personalized shelf markers the librarian makes with the student barcodes on the shelf marker so they double as their checkout tool.

  • Personalized shelf markers with where the librarian or teachers adds the student’s name and their reading level for certain reading programs the district uses. (Please remember that many of these reading levels are for classroom guided reading programs. Be sure to encourage your students/teachers to have free and voluntary reading choices. Look up Krashen and “free and voluntary reading”.)

If you are going to use shelf markers, then please take the time to instruct and model for the students how you want them to be used. Check out this post for some basic reminders. It will take quite a while to establish your routine and probably needs to be revisted at the start of the 2nd half of your school year. Suggestions:

  • Students should place the shelf marker on the shelf next to the book they want - before they touch a book.

  • Students should never have a shelf marker and a book in their hand at the same time.

I saw where one librarian plays a shelf marker game. She asks the students (single student or a team of students) to bring a certain book with a specific spine color to her. Or she may ask for a picture book or a fiction book, etc. They work together to place the shelf marker next to the specific book. Bring the book to her and then return it to the spot of their shelf marker. At the end, they must return the shelf marker to the designated spot. (Note: That’s one problem I had. Students often left the shelf marker in the shelves. If I had created personalized shelf markers as described above, I would know who the culprit was!)

If you are not going to use shelf markers, then develop a plan of how you want students to browse the books. Many librarians teach shelf reading skills. Students are taught how to locate and read the spine labels. They learn how shelves are organized and practice Dewey’s alphabetical and numerical order. Other librarians offer a re-shelving cart or box to return books to when a student decides they don’t want to check out a particular book. You can also use some tricks like “adopt a shelf” so students can learn to care for your shelf management system.

You’ll get the hang of it and so will your students. Choose a routine and stick with it. Consistency matters!

Dr. Laura

If you haven’t discovered my podcast yet, be sure to look for the Librarian Influencers podcast on your favorite podcast host. This week’s Librarian Influencer was Esmeralda Majors who talks about building a collection that reflects your student body. Check her out!

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